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Overborrowing and undersaving: lessons and policy implications from research in behavioral economics

  • Marques Benton
  • Stephan Meier
  • Charles Sprenger

The U.S. household carries over $7,500 in uncollateralized debt and likely saves at a negative rate. There is a growing body of evidence that this borrowing and saving behavior may not, as assumed by standard economics, be the product of rational financial planning. This paper discusses insights from behavioral economics on how self-control problems could play a crucial role in determining such financial outcomes. It is important to note that self-control problems, as defined in this paper, are thought of as an issue affecting all people, not just those involved in our specific research. ; The paper reports results from a field study targeted to low-to-moderate income individuals conducted in Dorchester, MA. It links measured self-control to borrowing and savings outcomes taken from individual credit reports and survey questions respectively. We find that self-control problems are associated with higher borrowing, specifically on credit cards, and lower savings of income tax refunds. The paper discusses how policy prescriptions built around addressing self-control issues could prove helpful in improving financial outcomes.

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Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in its series Public and Community Affairs Discussion Papers with number 2007-4.

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Date of creation: 2007
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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedbpc:2007-4
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  1. Oren Bar-Gill, . "Seduction by Plastic," American Law & Economics Association Annual Meetings 1013, American Law & Economics Association.
  2. Esther Duflo & William Gale & Jeffrey Liebman & Peter Orszag & Emmanuel Saez, 2005. "Saving Incentives for Low- and Middle-Income Families: Evidence from a Field Experiment with H&R Block," NBER Working Papers 11680, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  4. Stephan Meier & Charles Sprenger, 2007. "Impatience and credit behavior: evidence from a field experiment," Working Papers 07-3, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
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  15. Huffman, David B. & Barenstein, Matias, 2004. "Riches to Rags Every Month? The Fall in Consumption Expenditures Between Paydays," IZA Discussion Papers 1430, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  16. John Ameriks & Andrew Caplin & John Leahy & Tom Tyler, 2004. "Measuring Self-Control," NBER Working Papers 10514, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  17. Nicholas S. Souleles, 1999. "The Response of Household Consumption to Income Tax Refunds," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 89(4), pages 947-958, September.
  18. Bertrand, Marianne & Shafir, Eldar & Mullainathan, Sendhil, 2004. "A Behavioral Economics View of Poverty," Scholarly Articles 2907437, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  19. John Karl Scholz & Ananth Seshadri & Surachai Khitatrakun, 2004. "Are Americans Saving "Optimally" for Retirement?," NBER Working Papers 10260, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  20. James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Andrew Metrick, 2003. "Optimal Defaults," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(2), pages 180-185, May.
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